This blog takes a look at episodes from the Young Justice animated series from a tabletop roleplaying game perspective, both in terms of game design and game play.
Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.
The team goes up against Clayface and things do not go well. Batman arrives in the nick of time to take down Clayface with a couple of explosive weapons and a taser, then gives Aqualad a dressing-down at the cave for not having “his head in the game.” He gives Kaldur’ahm some time to make up his mind: “Either you’re here one-hundred percent or you need to walk away.”
Aqualad goes home to Atlantis to consider his future. We get treated to a quick welcome with Aquaman with dialog in Atlantean. Although the Atlanteans in the DC Comics previously communicated telepathically underwater, the seem to speak out-loud in the show, which has also generally been the case in the modern comics. We also get a quick look at the diversity of the Atlanteans, some of whom are human-looking apart from having gills, others with dolphin-like lower bodies (a bit different from the fish-like mer-people of the comics) and others with the features of aquatic creatures like Lagoon Boy—briefly seen, but not named in the episode—and the octopus-headed artist Topo, named for Aquaman’s octopus “sidekick” in the comics.
Topo provides some context with a quick recap of Aqualad’s background, and a look at a difference in continuity on Young Justice‘s Earth: Garth, the young Atlantean who did become Aqualad in the original DC Comics, chose a different path here, and Kaldur took on the role instead after aiding Aquaman against Ocean Master. We see Garth and Tula (Aquagirl in the comics) studying at the Atlantean Academy of Sorcery under the guidance of Queen Mera, who is a sorceress herself.
There’s a bit of foreshadowing in the Atlantean Science Center, as we get a look at a giant, frozen starfish-like creature (clearly Starro the Conqueror from the comics) and a discussion between Vulko (Aquaman’s scientific advisor) and Prince Orm. Although viewers don’t know it, comics-readers are aware that Aquaman’s half-brother is his arch-foe Ocean Master, meaning Orm’s role as the masked marauder of the seas is a secret, and he is a traitor in the heart of the Atlantean royal court.
Scattered throughout the episode, we get some “downtime” glimpses of the rest of the team, including:
- Miss Martian and Superboy, left alone at the cave, and awkwardly flirting, resulting in a telekinetic mishap that covers Superboy in flour and eggs.
- Robin’s frustrations over Aqualad being team leader over him. When Alfred announces “Master Bruce wishes to see you,” we expect another dressing down from the Batman but instead, Bruce “challenges” his ward to a friendly basketball game for “Training. Hand-eye coordination,” with a wry smile.
- Artemis gets a full scholarship to the Gotham Academy, no doubt due to Bruce Wayne’s influence, and wants to refuse, but her mother insists on it as a chance for her daughter that she never had. Also note the television talking about an upcoming “classic” episode of “Hello…” before it is turned off, foreshadowing the “Hello, Megan!” series in “Image” (episode 21).
- Wally West spends time with the rest of the “Flash family” at Jay Garrick’s birthday celebration.
Domestic matters continue in Atlantis as Kaldur invites Tula to dine with the royal family, Mera announces that she is pregnant, and Tula has to let Kaldur down with news that she and Garth are romantically involved.
Then, disaster! Black Manta and his men attack Atlantis. Aqualad and his friends rally to fight back, giving us a few interesting bits to consider:
The Atlantean sorcerers conjure a lot of energy constructs and shapes. In particular, most of Queen Mera’s spells take the form of ghostly sea creatures.
Aqualad figures out that Sector 4 has been free of explosions and that the target of the attacks must be the Science Center. Given how important this is to the plot, one wonders if it is a result of a “success” by Aqualad’s player (e.g. a successful Perception roll, skill check, etc.) or something handed to the player at the correct time, like: “Aqualad, you notice something about the pattern of the attack…”
Aqualad and Black Manta are pretty evenly matched as fighters. This is impressive, when you consider that Black Manta is one of Aquaman’s arch-enemies. Kaldur holds his own just fine for a “sidekick”!
Aqualad uses his water-bearers to not only block attacks, but to grab one of Manta’s men and use him to block a blast, taking the soldier out at the same time! A game system should, at the last, allow for this sort of awesomeness, if not encourage it in some fashion. It may include stunt mechanics, or bonuses for a particularly good die roll (critical success or Fate’s “success with style”).
Garth’s “I summon the power of the Tempest!” is a callback to his code-name as “Tempest” in the comics.
Khary Payton is the voice-actor for both Aqualad and Black Manta in this episode, another bit of foreshadowing that doesn’t come to pass for a while.
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Spotlight Time: The largest point of this episode from a game perspective is how much everything focuses on Aqualad. Certainly, other episodes of the series take time focusing the spotlight on different characters (as “Schooled” did with Superboy and “Denial” did with Kid Flash) but in “Downtime” the rest of the team isn’t present at all and only appears in a few individual asides. So, in a tabletop game environment, how does a story like this happen?
There are a few possibilities, including:
- This could be a largely solo game, run by a gamemaster for Aqualad’s player. It might be in-person or run using other media like chat, text, or even email.
- The game could focus on Aqualad, with the other players temporarily taking the roles of characters like Garth, Tula, Mera, and possibly Aquaman, although he isn’t around for any of the action scenes, suggesting he’s an NPC. It could also be a sub-set of players, such as another player taking the role of Garth, with everyone else as NPCs.
- The game might be an instance of “blue-booking,” a technique described in Aaron Allston’s Strike Force wherein certain stories and scenes are played out in writing (originally using blue composition notebooks, thus the name) apart from the main activity at the table. This story could be a literal instance of “downtime” between games wherein Aqualad’s player fills in an important story about the character’s motives and the GM gets to drop hints and foreshadowing about upcoming plot developments.
Playing With Expectations: Another element of the Young Justice series this episode highlights is playing with our expectations, particularly for comic book fans familiar with different interpretations of these characters. The episode is full of bits that are only apparent to viewers who have that greater context, like:
- Orm’s role and dialog are far more sinister when you’re aware that he’s secretly Ocean Master and absolutely hates his brother and sister-in-law.
- Mera’s announcement of her pregnancy is more poignant when you’re aware that Black Manta murders the royal couple’s child (Arthur, Jr. or “Aquababy”) in the comics.
- Bruce’s surprise basketball game to cheer up Dick is magnified for viewers who expect the grim, often-adversarial Batman/Robin dynamic that existed between the two of them for years in the comics. Again, this show portrays Bruce Wayne as a loving and caring foster parent.
- Tula’s injury is intensified by knowledge of her death in the comics during Crisis on Infinite Earths (under very similar circumstances) and its impact on Garth.
All of this is fodder for gamemasters using versions of familiar characters and settings from media in their games. You can use player knowledge and expectations of those things to either set up additional depth in subtext, or subvert those expectations for an added surprise.
Translating Outcomes: Aqualad and Garth triumphing against Black Manta raises the notion of measuring and describing “success” and even “victory” in a tabletop game. When Garth stops Manta from taking Starro, the villain angrily declares, “If I can’t have it, no one can!” and blows up the whole Science Center. Garth manages to shield himself and Kaldur, but Manta escapes.
Question is: What was the state of things mechanically, from a game perspective, at that moment? Was Black Manta “defeated” (at 0 Stamina, incapacitated, or however the system measures defeat) and this was a kind of triggered option to allow for his escape? Was Manta near defeat and able to use an “escape clause” like yielding from A Song of Ice & Fire Roleplaying, where you give up the fight, but get to choose the circumstances of your defeat? Or was it simply a matter of gamemaster choice to give Black Manta an opportunity to escape with a portion of his prize without the heroes any the wiser? Keep in mind, Manta is holding his own throughout the fight otherwise. Sometimes it’s worth considering how the mechanical results of the game get translated into the overall narrative of the story and what, exactly, “success” and “failure” (among other things) mean in those contexts.
Next: The team awakens in the Biaylian desert with no memory of the past six months—or each other.
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